By Jon Driscoll l @DriscollFC
There has been no greater talent in the history of football than Lionel Messi. For artistry combined with effectiveness he must be placed above Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Maradona and Pele. Given that football is now amongst our most highly valued forms of culture – along with film and music – and that he is the epitome and pinnacle of the sport, I place him on a par with Charles Dickens, Vincent Van Gogh and Mozart. It has been a privilege to watch him, commentate on him and write about him.
And he should take a pay cut.
In principle, there is little wrong with the best footballers earning fortunes – if they pay their suitable taxes. They entertain us and enrich our lives. We see for ourselves how good they are because their every move is filmed and analysed. They have not become rich by some financial sleight of hand or by bribing the right government officials. Within the football marketplace Messi is gold: he is the best and his brilliance has been relentless. It might be a highly integrated team sport but marketing works differently. Messi’s fame eclipses that of his peers and brings fans and their money to Barcelona. In the pre-Pandemic past I remember visiting theme parks in various parts of Europe and taking note of the names on the football shirts: there was Messi, there was Cristiano Ronaldo and there was the rest.
But there is a limit.
Imagine booking an auditorium to put on an opera but agreeing to pay the lead violinist so much that you can’t afford the rest of the orchestra. Tom Cruise’s name might pull in the punters but we will not go to the cinema to see him running around in a one-man action movie.
Barcelona are €720m in debt, which is dangerously high compared to their rivals, even given their international following. Circumstances have not helped. The club’s expected income dropped sharply because of the Covid-19 pandemic, keeping fans away from the Camp Nou and tourists out of the club’s shops and museums. The club with the world’s highest wage bill has been hit hard, pushing the proportion budget used for paying salaries to 80%.
Messi knows this. You can either be the naïve kid, leaving complicated things to the big-brains or you can be a leader, speaking perceptively about the shortcomings of the board and the future direction of the club. It is human to want the best of both worlds. Plenty of us moan about paying taxes while also complaining about the state of the roads, schools and hospitals. But the notion that it can all be fixed by some authority figure waving a wand of efficiency is magical thinking.
There is no wizard among the candidates to be Barcelona’s new president. Whoever wins will do a better job than Josep Maria Bartomeu – who wouldn’t? Frankly, if a board had set about deliberately ruining the club they could hardly have done better. The winner of the presidential election will inherit a squad ill-equipped to match the club’s ambition and a financial black hole that threatens to keep sucking. There is some sense in negotiating wage deferrals with the current players but that will leave the next regime paying the bills of this one. It has been reported that Messi’s already-agreed bonuses mean the club will still be paying him generously until 2025 – even if he leaves this summer. He will be a club legend for life and far beyond but one way of damaging his status would be for him to score a winning goal at the Camp Nou for Manchester City or PSG while being paid €170k a week by Barca.
How much money does one man need? Forbes business magazine estimated Messi is worth over €300m and that in 2019 he earned €98m. The answer lies is in the ambiguity of the word ‘worth’. Elon Musk is said to be ‘worth’ $209bn but he is worth no more to me than you are; in fact, less because you have taken the time to read this article. He just has more money. It is that ambiguous relationship between how much money you have and what you are worth that drives footballers’ wage demands. If Ousmane Dembele gets X and Antoine Griezmann gets Y then Messi must be worth Z because he is better at football than they are. Right?
I suggest it is time for Messi to face the reality: footballers can’t go solo and Barcelona cannot afford to pay his current wages while building a squad as competitive as he wants. Is there a club that can? I doubt it. UEFA’s attempt to suspend Manchester City from its competitions was defeated at the Court for Arbitration for Sport which was a setback for Financial Fair Play but not its death knell. FFP, as set up by UEFA, is imperfect but better than a financial Wild West of bankrupt clubs, unpaid bills and domination by oil-fuelled oligarchs. UEFA’s attempt to hit City where it hurt was an important warning shot. Vested interests will always fight hard against any attempts to reform a system but clubs are at least thinking twice about breaking the rules and blowing future budgets.
Even before the pandemic, FFP was influencing the transfer policies of the big clubs, which is part of the reason the likes of Gareth Bale, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar have been unable to get the moves they wanted. Another cycle of contracts down the line we might see more superstar transfers again. That’s if we can re-open the turnstiles.
La Liga prides itself on its FFP regulations: rather than setting a wage cap, each team is given an overall budget, depending on its income and can spend that as it wishes. Critics of FFP argue it locks in historical advantages because bigger clubs get bigger budgets and rich outsiders can’t bulldoze their way into the party or, like Super Depor, enjoy a debt-fuelled trophy-laden bender and worry about the extended hangover later. Barca have a problem with debt. Seeing them linked with signing Sergio Aguero was like hearing a friend with money worries talking about the latest holiday they’ve booked. It has to stop somewhere. Thankfully the campaign for the forthcoming elections has been about rebuilding the club rather than signing superstars. There is no bigger star than Messi. It is a great shame that his recent years have been spent at a club unravelling in the shadow of incompetent senior leadership. It wasn’t his fault they panicked and paid over the odds for Dembele, Coutinho and Griezmann – or that the La Masia hasn’t been spewing stars into the first team – but the black hole in the club’s accounts is partly down to him and Bartomeu’s fear of losing him.
Winning the Barcelona presidency while threatening to jettison the club’s greatest star is surely impossible so if Messi, his dad and their advisors want to demand another crippling pay day they probably can – but he must be aware that it comes at a cost. Of course, if he genuinely wants a fresh challenge while he is still somewhere near his peak then Man City or PSG might be able to work enough wriggle room to put him on the wage bill, especially with no transfer fee due. If that is the case then Barca’s new supremo should thank Messi for the memories, not cripple the club for a generation to come. But if Messi would rather stay, then what better way at sticking two fingers up at Bartomeu than playing for his successor for the same pay as his teammates?